THE HAGUE: A Malaysian passenger jet which blew up over rebel-held east Ukraine with the loss of all 298 people on board was hit by numerous “high-energy objects”, according to a report Tuesday which could back up claims it was downed by a missile.
While the preliminary report from Dutch investigators does not point the finger of blame over the July disaster, it could heighten Western pressure against Moscow over its role in the bloody Ukraine conflict.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 “broke up in the air probably as the result of structural damage caused by a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside,” said the Dutch Safety Board report.
International experts have been unable to access the rebel-held crash site northeast of Donetsk because of fighting, and have relied on information from the black boxes, Ukrainian officials, as well as pictures and video taken at the scene.
But the findings appear to back up claims that the Boeing 777, which plunged out of the sky on July 17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was hit by a missile.
“The initial results of the investigation point towards an external cause of the MH17 crash,” said Tjibbe Joustra, chairman of the OVV safety board.
He said more work was needed to determine the cause with greater precision and that the final report was expected by July 2015.
Kiev and the West have accused pro-Russian separatists of shooting down the plane with a surface-to-air BUK missile supplied by Moscow.
The powerful weapon works by exploding directly outside the target and hitting it with a massive amount of high-velocity shrapnel.
But Russia, which rejects Western claims it has sent in elite troops and heavy weapons to bolster the pro-Kremlin insurgency, blamed Kiev's forces.
And the insurgents again denied any role.
“I can say only one thing: we simply do not have the military hardware capable of shooting down a Boeing passenger jet such as the Malaysian plane, “Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told Russia's Interfax new agency.
The downing of MH17 was the second tragedy for Malaysia Airlines after the mysterious disappearance of flight MH370 in March, and threw the global spotlight back on the uprising in eastern Ukraine.
“There are no indications that the MH17 crash was caused by a technical fault or by actions of the crew,” the OVV said.
Search still suspended
The report was issued just a day after the EU adopted new sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine conflict that has killed over 3,000 people including the MH17 victims.
The majority of people on board the plane were Dutch.
Shortly after the tragedy, forensic experts travelled to the vast crash site near the town of Grabove to collect body parts, but the search remains suspended.
Air crash investigators hope to return to the site if a ceasefire agreed Friday between the Ukraine government and the separatist rebels holds.
Kiev has accused the insurgents of repeated truce violations, and on Tuesday the government said four soldiers had been killed since Friday.
It also said the government-controlled airport outside Donetsk was hit by rocket and mortar fire overnight.
A woman was also killed Saturday when rebels launched attacks on the southeastern city of Mariupol, a key battleground since the insurgents launched a lightning counter-offensive last month.
'Ready to review sanctions'
The EU agreed new sanctions against Moscow on Monday — adding to a series of punitive measures adopted after the downing of MH17 — but said they could be suspended.
“Depending on the situation on the ground, the EU stands ready to review the agreed sanctions in whole or in part,” European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said.
The new restrictions would bar Russia's largest state-owned oil and defence firms from using European markets to raise capital and slap more asset freezes and travel bans on officials.
Russia has warned it would react to with an “asymmetrical” measure that could see EU airlines banned from flying over its airspace.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko vowed in a phone call Monday to work to uphold the ceasefire, the first backed by both Kiev and Moscow since the insurgency erupted in April.
“We are not interested in anyone or anything trying to scuttle the implementation of the Minsk agreements,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday.
He also said he hoped talks on the status of the rebel-held areas in Ukraine would start shortly under the terms of the 12-point truce.
Poroshenko has called on the OSCE, the pan-European security body that brokered the deal, to send observers to flashpoint sites.